2 April 2012: UK struggling with low-carbon bridge technologies

The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has announced that it is about to launch a programme to commercialise CCS. Ed Davey, who is Energy and Climate Secretary, told Parliament that:

CCS has the potential to be one of the most cost effective technologies for decarbonisation of the UK’s power and industrial sectors, as well as a significant green growth opportunity”.

He is right that that CCS has great potential. However, potential does nothing to protect the climate. CCS technology has been used at small scale and at different stages of the generation process, but not yet at large scale or integrated throughout the process. The UK’s performance on CCS to date has been very poor. The Labour government launched a competition in 2007 for a £1 billion subsidy, but restricted this to post-combustion, one of the three types of CCS (see Carbon capture and storage) on the grounds that this can be retrofitted to existing power stations. But it then opened the competition to power companies wanting to build new coal power stations, including Eon’s proposed new Kingsnorth station in Kent.  Eon pulled out in 2009 (see 12 October 2009: In UK, excellent news on Kingsnorth and greater honesty on energy costs, but a step change still needed), leaving only Scottish Power’s Longannet plant. However, Longannet pulled out in 2011, so the UK is still at square one in terms of delivery.

Ed Davey is now saying that there will be a re-run of the £1 billion competition. It is good that DECC has kept the figure at £1 billion, beating off attempts by the Treasury to reduce it. He also says that there will be further competitions so that the UK has four commercial-scale CCS demonstration plants in operation. There will be the inevitable roadmap published to outline how the UK could get there.

Davey ended his statement by claiming that this further competition and the roadmap:

… will ensure that the UK continues to be a global leader on CCS”.

(See DECC: Written ministerial statement: Update on government support for CCS)

Presumably he felt able to make this claim because it was a written rather than verbal statement to Parliament. Surely he couldn’t have kept a straight face when claiming that the UK is a world leader on an issue on which practical progress has been precisely zero. As is often the case, the UK talks a good talk, but fails to deliver. (Tony Blair was guilty of this in regard to climate change.) The current government’s policies are moving in the right direction, but extremely slowly.

Last week’s announcement by Eon and RWE that they are pulling out of their Horizon joint venture to build new nuclear stations in the UK was a further indication of the cost of this slowness. Clearly, Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power was a major part of these German companies’ decision, since it damaged their balance sheets and also strengthened anti-nuclear sentiment in their home market.  However, the lack of decisive support from the UK government also contributed.

Eon and RWE are seeking buyers for Horizon. The two remaining consortia for nuclear new build in the UK are EDF/Centrica (of which EDF holds 80%) and GDF Suez/Iberdrola (50/50). If one of these consortia buys Horizon, that will be more ammunition to those opposing nuclear on the dubious grounds that this is giving power to the French (see 15 March 2012: A response to four former Friends of the Earth directors on nuclear power).

However, it’s possible that no one will want to buy Horizon. In which case, the UK will get fewer new nuclear stations, and more gas stations without CCS. This might be good news for the anti-nuclear movement, but it’ll be bad news for the global climate.

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